Pens are as direct and sweet as their band name. The trio from London are all smiles stepping into their first ever American gig in San Francisco, even though they haven’t slept in two days and got lost driving up to the Bay Area from Los Angeles.
“We wanted to come. It was just so far away we had to,” says Stef Orlando as we settle in the upstairs smoking area at the Rickshaw Stop for the girls’ first interview in the States.
“Tonight’s show is gonna be good. We stayed up for 36 hours yesterday, so savage,” Amelia Braekke-Dyer says.
The three met working as illustrators in their native U.K. and their band name was born out of a pivotal tool used daily. “And what do you have in your hand? Pens!” says Braekke-Dyer. “It was really that simple.”
Their design background came in handy for their Beavis and Butthead-inspired tour T-shirts, and Ren & Stimpy may be their next source of inspiration, as Braekke-Dyer has been watching much of the show. “But you need three characters for that one,” she says. “We’re still thinking about it.”
Pens first came together in March 2008 under a different name and as a duo, though Braekke-Dyer and Orlando met years previous. The two went to the same school pre-university and met up again in their art foundation program, a step in between high school and college by American standards. The two were performing more electronic-style songs at a house party when Helen Taylor was introduced. “Our first song was ‘Look, Look, Dancing Boys,’” explains Braekke-Dyer. “We were 19.”
At their next gig as a new trio, they only played half the songs on their set list and eventually got bored of the old band’s direction before embarking on what is now Pens. “One turning point was when we had a drum machine initially, but then went ‘Wait! Let’s get real drums to play!’ says Orlando. The girls ordered a kit on eBay, and Taylor was appointed to bang skins without initially knowing how to play. “For a bit I held the cymbal between my legs,” she says. “And sometimes we used a DVD box as a drumstick,” remembers Orlando. “We needed to make a sound somehow.”
“We do have really funny songs recorded with that,” says Taylor.
The girls also exchange instruments during the show, when they took their place between fellow U.K. band Graffiti Islands and San Diego’s Crocodiles. Braekke-Dyer moves to drums from guitar, Orlando moves from bass to lead vocals, and Taylor gravitates from her place behind the drum kit to keys. “I decided [recently] it was time to get some blisters,” Taylor says. Their dreamy garage runs smooth and easy on stage, even though twice Orlando apologizes for the band’s anxiety: “We are so fucking nervous right now, we’re really sorry.”
Despite the occasional “Pen15” reference (“We knew it was going to happen,” says Braekke-Dyer, especially with their MySpace URL), the girls are in high spirits about the future. After their west coast tour, the trio will be opening for The Slits in England in October.
“We were asked the other day, and when it was confirmed we were like ‘What?!,” says Orlando. “We never expected anything to happen, so to have it happen is amazing,” says Taylor. “We’re really lucky.”